Ripples from the First Wave: The Monarchical Origins of the Welfare State

PERSPECTIVES ON POLITICS 13.4 (2015): 992-1016

Abstract: Before the welfare state, people were protected from disabilities resulting from illness, old age, and other infirmities by care work provided within the family. When the state assumes responsibility for care-work tasks, in effect it assumes parental roles, thereby becoming a form of familial government in which the public provision of goods and services is analogous to care work provided in the family. My research pushes back the origins of the state’s obligation to care for people to a preindustrial form of government, hereditary monarchies—what Max Weber termed patrimonialism. It explicates how monarchs were cast as the parents of the people, thereby constituting kingship as a care work regime that assigned to political rulers parental responsibility for the welfare of the people. Using historical and quantitative analysis, I establish that retaining the legitimacy of monarchies as the first form of familial government in the course of Western European democratizing makes it more credible to the public and to political elites to accept the welfare state as the second form of familial government. That, in turn, promotes a more robust public sector supportive of social provision. The results reformulate conceptions of the contemporary welfare state and its developmental legacies.